(l to r) MWP General Manager Adel Hagekhalil, Sylvia Ballin and Adan Ortega.

Adan Ortega, the City of San Fernando’s representative on the Metropolitan Water District’s (MWD) Board of Directors, has been elected as chairman, becoming the first Latino to hold the position in the district’s 94-year history.

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, Ortega was elected by the district’s Board of Directors to serve a two-year term as chairman of the board. He was previously appointed by the San Fernando City Council in March 2021 to serve as the City’s representative on the board of directors. He begins his term on Jan. 1, 2023.

“I feel glad that I have two and a half months before I assume office to grasp the structure of our policy challenges and dealing with the current drought,” Ortega said, “but more so with the climate change factors that are driving not only this drought, but dynamics in the environment that are probably something that we’re going to have to account for in our long-term plan.”

Ortega also noted with “a certain amount of serendipity” that he was elected as the first Latino chairman during Hispanic Heritage Month. However, he said he was happier being able to represent the City of San Fernando, whose population is predominantly Latino, saying his election was an acknowledgement of the city’s tenacity. Among his expertise, he is noted for bringing assistance to small community water systems in disadvantaged communities.

Once he assumes the position of chairman, Ortega said he wants to organize the board in a manner that tackles the issues that are being affected by climate change, namely the harsh drought in both the Northern California and Colorado River supplies that MWD has never encountered before.

“Metropolitan has always tried to plan for a worst case scenario where we have a drought in one or two of our three sources, but never in all three sources at once,” Ortega said. “This is very unprecedented, it’s climate change driven [and] it’s going to require that we think long and hard about how we plan, and this includes not just our infrastructure and resources planning, but our finances and how we’re going to pay for all this.”

MWD is the primary water importer and wholesaler for nearly 19 million people in six counties in Southern California – and as chairman, Ortega will be responsible for leading the board in adapting to the serious conditions that have been brought on by climate change.  

The challenges are not equal.

The San Fernando Valley’s water quality has “had a legacy of contamination” since World War II, when the valley’s groundwater was polluted by airplane manufacturing company Lockheed Martin. In 2018, the company agreed to pay for the cleanup in a settlement.

As it becomes more viable and feasible to reclaim the contaminated water, Ortega said that they also have to think about water storage when there’s a surplus and have it ready for the next drought.

The City of San Fernando Water System Nitrate Cleanup

After finding a large concentration of nitrates in the water well system in April, the City of San Fernando shut down one of its wells in the Sylmar groundwater basin. The City had to import water from MWD for the first time since 2015 to compensate.

The city owns four wells in the basin — only two are currently operational. The largest well was shut down in April and another was shut down in 2009 – but that well is expected  to resume operations by the end of the year.

San Fernando recently received  $7 million secured by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) to pay for the nitrate cleanup.

Ortega said that the city is in a strategically important position because its water demands are modest and its residents were able to conserve water, and he gave credit to Hertzberg for providing state resources; however, Ortega said that more work needs to be done.

“Here’s the real challenge: Metropolitan’s water is more than double the cost of our local groundwater, even with treatment, and so being able to expedite that state funding is key in containing water rates. Water is getting more expensive, even without these problems.”

Southern California has more poor communities than anywhere in the state, according to Ortega, so discussing water affordability will be the next step for MWD. He said that MWD has to come up with the means to help low-income residents and make water more affordable.

One idea Ortega mentioned was turf replacement. During the last drought, MWD spent $300 million on turf replacement, but the vast majority of the funds went to affluent communities.

Ortega said that MWD is now trying to get lower income communities aware of turf replacement programs to help them conserve water. But Ortega also mentioned that such measures have to be taken carefully  to not adversely affect the environment.

“You can’t just take the turf, you have to be conscious of the fact that there’s other things at stake, like protecting the tree canopy,” Ortega said. “The issues with climate change are complicated. We need to conserve water, but we also have the issues with the heating effect that can put the health of people in danger.”

For Ortega, his biggest challenge as chairman will be reimagining MWD’s financial structure to be able to afford the kind of infrastructure that they’re going to have to build, which means becoming more aggressive about getting their share of federal funding.

He mentioned the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience program (SAFER) — which helps disadvantaged communities with water quality and drought issues — saying that more money needs to go to Southern California.

Ortega said that he wants to ensure that, as chairman, he is responsible for bringing communities together and helping them through this drought.

“I think if we all understand that we share in the pain, we’ll be willing — collectively — to help everybody, especially the disadvantaged communities and those communities that, for some reason, fall at a disadvantage in the water supply.”